Chinese positive perceptions of Europe: how the continent can capitalise on them


Global Europe

Picture of Songying Fang
Songying Fang

Associate Professor of Political Science at Rice University

In late 2020 and early 2021, before and after the United States presidential election, my colleagues and I conducted two waves of public opinion surveys in China. We asked Chinese respondents whether they held positive or negative views of the US and nine European countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Given the rising tensions between China and the US, and between China and the West more broadly, we anticipated to find negative Chinese public opinions towards these countries, mirroring the increasingly negative Western public opinion towards China. However, the findings surprised us.

European countries should think creatively about capitalising on these favourable perceptions to engage with and influence various actors in China

First, we found that there is no monolithic ‘West’ in the eyes of the Chinese public, contrary to the term’s prevalent use in popular media that groups the US with western European countries. Although the Chinese respondents’ views towards the US were indeed highly negative, mirroring the negative sentiment of the American public towards China, they expressed significantly more favourable opinions about European countries, averaging almost 40% higher than those for the US.

Second, the Chinese public expressed much greater favourability towards European countries than the public in these nations did towards China. The gap was substantial, with the highest at 50% for Sweden and the lowest at 30% for Spain, among the EU countries. Even for the UK, which garnered the most negative views from the Chinese public among the European countries, there was a 17% favourability gap.

The degree of favourability varied by country. Notably, Germany received the highest favourability rating at 69%, with negative views standing at only around 23%. The unfavourability rates for EU countries were all at or below 30%. This is a remarkable phenomenon,especially considering that the general state of official relationships between China and Europe has markedly deteriorated, mirroring the decline in China’s relations with the US.

We also found that young Chinese individuals were more likely to express positive views of all the European countries. More specifically, we found that those who were born in the 1990s or later held more favourable views of all European countries compared to the respondents born in the 1960s or earlier. In addition, neither nationalism nor Communist Party membership resulted in statistically distinguishable differences in respondents’ attitudes towards these countries. [1]

An explanation for the favourable Chinese public opinion towards European countries is that disagreements or conflicts between China and these countries have not received the kind of intense media attention within China that US-China relations have. While media outlets often cover negative events between China and Europe, the criticisms are directed at a broad set of actors across Europe, thereby diffusing their impact. Moreover, for younger Chinese people, improved living conditions, advanced communication technologies and easier access to international travel have afforded more opportunities to experience Western cultures, sports, fashion, lifestyles and values. In the absence of a rivalry similar to that between the US and China, such enhanced exposure to the outside world may have fostered more positive views towards European countries among Chinese youth.

The findings suggest that Europe continues to enjoy significant goodwill, or ‘soft power’, among the Chinese population. It is unclear how long these positive views will persist. However, for the time being, European countries should think creatively about capitalising on these favourable perceptions to engage with and influence various actors in China – from citizens and private companies to the government. The aim should be to foster convergence on a wide range of issues for which both sides have incentives to pursue such outcomes.

What kind of world does [Europe] wish to inhabit when [the US and China] recognise that they must coexist peacefully, among others?

In particular, drawing on its extensive experience in setting rules and shaping norms within its own region, Europe could actively engage in discussions with Chinese counterparts on rules and norms in emerging areas where global governance is weak or simply non-existent, yet the consequences of which will be borne by all of humanity. Such areas include climate change and food security, but also increasingly cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and the protection of personal health information. Cooperation in these areas is essential because rules and norms cannot be established or developed by mutually exclusive geopolitical blocs if they are to effectively address such issues. Europe can serve both as a key stakeholder and interlocutor in the development of these global rules and norms.

In the ongoing tension between the US and China, it is easy for third countries to become fixated on the question of whether to take a side and the trade-offs – typically, balancing security against economic interests – that such a decision entails. However, this prevailing perspective on foreign policy choices in the face of great power competition may be unnecessarily limiting for Europe, a region that has experienced profound integration in rules, norms and values, and has enjoyed a long period of economic prosperity.

Even if a war were to break out between the two superpowers, it is unlikely that the world would end. Moreover, the problems faced by humanity today would likely persist. Therefore, the more pressing questions for Europe to contemplate as a continent might be: what kind of world does it wish to inhabit when the two powers recognise that they must coexist peacefully, among others? Under what rules and norms would it prefer to live? Would those be rules and norms that the Chinese domestic stakeholders would also have incentives to develop jointly out of their self-interests?

[1] As of 2023, there are more than 98 million Communist Party members.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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